Case study: Putting mental wellbeing on a par with physical health

Written by: Lisa Fathers | Published:
Parity of esteem: Students from Cedar Mount Academy in Manchester taking part in a mental health conference at the Etihad Stadium. They led a mental health exercise with more than 200 adults working in education (image supplied)

A pilot in Greater Manchester is involving a high number of schools in helping to put mental health on a par with physical health. One of the people behind the project, Lisa Fathers, explains more and looks at why we need to practise what we preach when it comes to mental health...

I am delighted to be involved in a Mentally Healthy Schools Rapid Pilot being rolled out across Greater Manchester – one of vital importance, as it is improving things for students and staff alike.

This project is seeing primary and secondary school children and young people across the North West of England receive training to become Young Mental Health Champions, while their teachers receive Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training and leadership training about wellbeing. It is part of a £134 million action plan to help transform mental health in Greater Manchester.

Because of the opportunities of devolution we do things differently in Manchester and this is the start of a mental health revolution. It is the most creative and innovative cross-sector campaign in the country, which we hope will eventually be rolled out nationwide.

One of our key aims is to put mental health on a level footing with physical health in education. It comes as Ofsted is looking at reviewing their focus and as the Mental Health Foundation warns that around half a million children are not getting enough mental health support at school.

To me, physical and mental health are intrinsically linked. I am trained by MHFA England as a MHFA national trainer and I also represent education on the executive-level Greater Manchester Children’s Health and Wellbeing Board.

In my role as director of the Alliance for Learning Teaching School at the Bright Futures Educational Trust, I am heavily involved in leadership of the Mentally Healthy Schools Rapid Pilot.

The Alliance for Learning has joined charities 42nd Street, Place2Be and the Youth Sport Trust to deliver the training and support to both students and staff. The scheme has worked with 31 schools across the North West and aims to make health – mental and physical – a fundamental focus of the schools.

The value of physical exercise has been recognised for some time in the field of education. Physical education has so many benefits – on the playing field, in the classroom and outside of school altogether. It encourages a team ethic, improves health, increases concentration, forms bonds and drives confidence in young people. I’ve seen first-hand the incredibly empowering effect it can have on students of all ages and abilities. But the grown-ups need to lead by example.

The Daily Mile is a great example. Six years ago, Elaine Wyllie had noticed the students at her Stirling school were lethargic and not concentrating enough. So she introduced a break every morning, when her staff and pupils would all either run, jog or walk a mile around the school field. Within weeks, she had noticed the difference.

Now more than one million children across 44 countries are signed up to the Daily Mile. Thousands of young lives have already been transformed by this simple, free and effective activity.

All of the schools in Bright Futures Educational Trust take part in the Daily Mile – and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham recently joined one of the schools to hear about the impact it is having. Children were keen to tell him how they felt “energised”, “ready for work”, “awake” and “happier” since starting the Daily Mile. More than 400 schools across Greater Manchester have now signed up and Sport England has announced £2 million of funding to support the area’s Daily Mile ambitions. If we are helping children feel happier and healthier then this will be money very well spent.

To me though, the additional beauty of the Daily Mile is that it involves both staff and students. It is vitally important that teachers lead by example when it comes to both physical and mental health.

This is the best way to encourage the students – by being open about it, it will encourage others to do the same. There is another hugely important reason though: teachers themselves are under immense pressure and everyone needs to have access to mental health support in their school, rather than it being an add on with a couple of first aiders.

This is where the pilot has been successful, as it has involved people at every level – senior and middle leaders have received mental health training and support, hundreds of primary and secondary school children have taken part in active workshops, and all of the schools involved so far agree that they now actively promote mental health and wellbeing, to everyone, as part of their day-to-day routine.

For example, at one school, the physical first aid stations have been changed to include as well. One pupil told me: “I know where I can go if I’m worried, it’s the same place I go to if I have a cut finger.” This is a potential societal change.

Some quick tips

There are some very simple ways that school leaders can introduce mental and physical health awareness and care in school:

  • First of all appoint at least two mental health first aiders from the staff.
  • Invest in training on early trauma and attachment.
  • Encourage solution-focused discussion about workload and marking.
  • Introduce the Daily Mile and encourage sport throughout the school as much as possible.
  • Consider involving the PE department in wellbeing discussions.
  • Appoint mental health ambassador students and invest in training them.
  • Get your teachers and students working together to create areas where young people can feel comfortable talking about their mental health.
  • Create assemblies that look at the links between mental and physical health.
  • Explore mindfulness.
  • Ensure pastoral staff have regular supervision.
  • Embed a coaching culture so “talking” and “relationships” are valued.
  • Encourage healthy working hours and keep emails to a minimum.
  • Encourage senior staff to act as role models, getting active and leaving school at an appropriate time to demonstrate that work/life balance is key.

All of the above are helpful, but essentially it is about culture and ethos, which comes down to leadership. We have seen demand for our mental health training courses double in the last two years, as a majority of school leaders see increases in anxiety and stress in their schools. Encouragingly, school leaders are recognising the mental health needs of their staff as well as their students and are asking us to deliver MHFA adult courses too. This can only be a good thing.

Students and staff have the right to wellbeing and health support in order to be able to do a great job and be happy. By making simple changes to the school’s routine, everyone can feel the benefit. Schools are the best place to get this right. After all, as Abraham Lincoln said: “The philosophy of the classroom today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow.” SecEd

  • Lisa Fathers is head of the Alliance for Learning Teaching School and a co-principal at Bright Futures Educational Trust. The Alliance for Learning is a Teaching School partnership of 70 schools. She also represents secondary schools on the Greater Manchester Children’s Health and Wellbeing Board. The Alliance for Learning’s Mental Health First Aid Training course is being given across schools all over the region. Visit


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